Playing the Name Game | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 02.06.2008
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Playing the Name Game

When is football not football? When it's soccer. But wait. It's the same game with the same rules. So does it really matter what the sport is called?


I say "tomato" say "tomayto"...I say "football" say "soccer"

Someone once wrote that "a rose by any other name is still a rose." But what if that rose was a sport and that sport was football. Would football still be the same sport if it went by a different name? Well, it does and when you look at it, it doesn't make a lot of difference whether you call that sport "football" or "soccer."

Except to a lot of people it does make a lot of difference. Which raises the question, why does it matter so much if a game, with the same set of rules and regulations applied regardless of moniker, is called one thing or the other?

The debate over whether "the beautiful game" should be called football or soccer seems to have been drawn up over national lines. Despite the fact that a version of the game was being played in China 3000 years ago, England is widely regarded as being the birthplace of the modern game we now call football…or soccer. For the English, the game is most definitely called football.

And this is where it starts to get interesting -- and complicated.

The game has been played in England since the Middle Ages. It is unlikely that it had a name at that point as those involved were probably less concerned with what it was called and more worried about surviving the matches which often lasted longer than a day.

Early "fute-ball" nearly didn't make it to become "football"

Back then kicking, punching, biting and gouging were allowed and such was the ferocity of the game that King Edward III passed laws in 1331 to try and outlaw the game. In Scotland, King James I, proclaimed in Parliament in 1424, "That na man play at the Fute-ball" (No man shall play football) – which is one of the first recorded uses of the word associated with the sport.

A good 400 years passed before the game gained enough credibility to be recognized as an official sport in England. The Football Association (FA) was formed in London in October 1863 in an attempt to standardize the rules of the game which they called "Association Football."

Eton College

Blame for the term "soccer" sits firmly with the upper classes

Twenty-six years later, fed up with shouting out "hey lads, fancy a game of Association Football?" public school and university students, most notably at Oxford, began shortening the cumbersome title to "socca" and by 1895 the word had been reworked into "soccer."

"Socca" phrase coined by English elite

So far from being a totally unacceptable and derogatory word for football, the word soccer actually developed from some of the most privileged and highly educated minds in the country.

Back in the 1600s, the game of "fute-ball" was starting to cause mayhem in the colonies. Kick-abouts have been recorded at the original Jamestown settlement in the United States as far back as 1609.

Even before the forming of the FA in London, students at Harvard and Princeton were playing the game known as "football" in annual contests which began in 1827, before forming their own small leagues in 1840.

Invention of American Football puts the US in a quandry

NFL 2006 Playoff - Panthers gegen Bears: Steve Smith American Football

Football played with the hands? Not technically football.

When the Americans developed rugby into their own brand of hand-held football in the late 1800s, they found themselves in a dilemma. There was already a game called "football" -- the one those Princeton and Harvard boys enjoyed so much.

To call the physical contact sport that they had just developed "football" would cause massive confusion. Imagine organizing a game of "football" only to have one team turn up in helmets and pads, not to mention the confusion future generations of "football moms" would have.

So the Americans adopted the word the English elite had fashioned to determine between the rugby derivative and Association Football. Soccer, perversely, became the game you played with your feet, while football remained the sport in which you used your hands.

Both terms are English names for the same sport

Der offizielle WM-Ball Teamgeist von Adidas

A football or a soccer ball?

When it comes down to it then, it's all a matter of personal taste. The English fans who champion the cause of football over soccer because "they play soccer in the US and football in England" are right but only in the literal sense. Both are the English terms for the same sport and those who argue that "soccer" is an American term and therefore an insult to the English game are misguided.

For the Americans, their brand of "football" is really nothing of the sort and if anything should be called "American Rugby".

But really, when all is said and done -- it's just a game. Who cares what you call it?

Editor's Note: DW-WORLD uses the word "soccer" because of our editorial policy of using American English not because we want to offend anyone.

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